Story by KL Chouinard
As the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards each try to figure out how to win a playoff series currently tied at two wins each, one of the factors that swings in the Hawks favor moving forward is Dwight Howard. He was a monster in Game 4’s 111-101 win. He set firm picks and rolled to the hoop with force. He protected the rim. He soared for dunks.
The Hawks were not a one-man team Monday. They had seven players who finished with 10 or more points, becoming the first team to do so in this playoffs. But Howard’s presence gave the team a base off which to build, and a bunch of Hawks flourished in the interplay. When Howard patrolled the restricted area on defense, Paul Millsap had a chance to roam further from it and apply his all-world defensive pressure. When Howard got extra attention on box outs, Ersan Ilyasova jumped from a very good rebounder into a great one. When Dennis Schröder turned the corner on the pick-and-roll, he had an extra step because of the swath that Howard’s picks generate.
Howard also made himself a valuable receiver in the passing game. When José Calderón drove under the basket, Howard presented himself as a target who was ready to finish above the rim. When Howard rolled, Kent Bazemore had a target for his accurate alley-oop passes.
“Those two guys (Calderon and Bazemore) and the rest of the team,” Howard said afterward, “they found me in some great spots to score. I’m very thankful for those two.”
The numbers say that Howard is having a strong postseason. The Hawks have scored 108.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor while only yielding 102.0. Howard has averaged 11.8 rebounds per game. He has been the lynchpin of a defensive scheme that has him playing back on pick-and-rolls in an attempt to keep John Wall and Bradley Beal from scoring at the rim. The Wizards have only made 42.4 percent of their shots at the rim when Howard has been within five feet of the the shooter — and perhaps more importantly, his presence has even limited the number of attempts.
On the other hand, Howard has gotten better as the series has gone on. His Games 1 and 2 weren’t as good as his Games 3 and 4. Uncoincidentally, the Hawks won the latter two.
“The defense and his activity on the boards, second and third efforts, going to offensive rebounds, all of those things — we need more of that every night, every possession. When he’s like that, it can help carry his teammates and help us take that next step,” Head Coach Mike Budenholzer said.
Howard has even made 66.7 percent of his free throws, looking confident and sure-handed at the charity stripe. If he keeps it up in all of these facets, the Hawks have serious postseason potential. Howard knows the goals.
“We just have to keep it going,” Howard said after Game 4. “It’s not about me. It’s about our team and what we’re trying to accomplish.”